The founding elements of every community

As a community manager, you always need to keep in mind the core elements of your community, and the business value your community brings to the company.

I presented two frameworks to identify and describe them: The 7P’s of community, and the SPACES model. To the road for an Indispensable Community.

(Italian Community Managers Lab #1, March 2021)

Key principles to organize a community event in Virtual Reality

Organize a community event in virtual reality

You’re excited to organize your next community event in Virtual Reality. You know the reasons for doing it, but you don’t know how to do it. In this post, I’ll list the key principles to keep in mind while organizing a VR community event.

Explore, test, iterate

VR is still a very new medium. Community builders need time to understand its peculiarities, and how they can serve their communities. Especially at the beginning, it won’t be all rainbows and unicorns, and getting everything right at the first attempt is quite rare. Instead, exploring, testing and iterating is my best recipe for success.

Luckily, VR shares many of the social dynamics happening during in-person activities, so figuring our how a community experience can be doesn’t require to start from scratch. Nevertheless, it’s a new medium. Best practices are shaped and refined constantly, platforms evolve, what other community builders are doing today heavily influences what others will do tomorrow.

This is why the way I suggest to understand how VR works is to get hands dirty and explore events organized by others. Being a curious community builder allows to learn about the platform(s) UX, to collect ideas, discover common behavioral patterns, take notes on how the space is built and arranged, notice how communities express themselves in VR… To learn from others!

While the VR-awareness is built, it’s useful to put it under test using the lens of the community event to be organized. Immediately, without waiting to have the full big picture in mind on how everything should look like. Iteratively, because modeling a community event in virtual reality requires to take care both of the content, and the (virtual) environment when it happens. Finding the right synergies between the two, inside of a new medium, cannot use something different than an iterative approach.

Follow (almost) the same rules for organizing an in-person event

It’s astonishing how much people’s behavioral expectations overlap between real life and virtual reality scenarios. Circles are naturally formed while a group is chatting. If a circle is small and tight, there is an uncomfortable feeling to break it (so, Pac-Man rule is still valid). Before a person disconnects, they generally goes around to say goodbye to other attendees. If someone is close (maybe waiting in a queue), it’s quite natural, and accepted, to break the silence and start talking.

The direct consequence is that best practices for organizing an in-person community event apply also to a community event in virtual reality. From having spaces to take selfie together, to reserving time for unstructured networking opportunities (yep, they work very well in VR). From welcoming new community members, to pay specific attention for attendees that joined in VR for the first time. From having a prominent and visible stage to keep attendees engaged with the speaker(s), to a decent volume of background music, not too loud to cover people’s conversations, but audible enough to characterize the space with a positive mood.
There is already a lot of material available, and I suggest to take a look to The Art of Gathering book.

Why does this happen? Because VR is truly immersive, and we feel we’re really somewhere, body and mind.

Carefully pick-up a platform

In real life, there are many interchangeable places where a community can host its events. In virtual reality, the different platforms play a crucial role in the final experience offered to community members. Potentially, all of them can host a community event. In reality, a lot depends on the purposes for the meeting. It’s an intimate meetup? It’s important to leverage the network effect of the platform to acquire new members? It has to be a fun moment? The main goal is to be productive and move forward in a community project, or to share knowledge? There are specific platforms for each one of the listed objectives, and I’m sure more will come in the future.

In addition to specific use cases that each platform focuses on (or doesn’t), there are also technical aspects to consider. For example, how many people the event could host (>10 / 50 / 200 / 1000+)? Recording and sharing afterward is important? What level of space customization is required (total terraforming, changes some details of pre-defined environments, ability to do it only inside VR vs importing from external tools like Unity)? How much the avatar can be adapted to members’ preferences (heavily customizable in every aspect, clothes included, vs standard and coherent, more photo-realistic vs cartoonesque, etc)?

Finally, it’s important to take into account the platform transition cost. Each user has preferences, and it won’t be easy to move community members from one platform to another. New accounts, new UI and UX, different supported hardware, etc. With the due exceptions, it’s important to choose from the beginning a platform “to partner with”, and try to stick to it as much as possible, to build the user base over time. Among the exceptions, a community of pioneers, that makes the “experimenting with what’s new” its reason to exist, or meeting for once somewhere else, as a kind of “VR roadtrip experience” offered to the community members.

This is where someone with virtual reality experience can really help, saving a lot of time while matching the community goals and habits, with the right platform to fulfill them.

Keep building the community identity

A common identity, and shared experiences, we know, are among the cornerstones that build a sense of community. Customizing the VR space, to make it able to narrate the community identity and bring out these shared memories, is a crucial element for running a successful community event in virtual reality.

There are two senses that could be leveraged in VR nowadays: sight and sound. If the community already has past experiences in real life, it’s fine (and suggested) to create a continuum between these past experiences and the current VR setup. Placing pictures of past events somewhere in the VR space works really well. Recreating in VR known places, where the community had meaningful experiences is even better, at the cost of more effort. If there are physical routines the community is used to (for example singing a hymn, saying particular sentences, use specific objects, etc) it’s a good idea to translate them in their VR counterparts. Music or songs that are connected with community memories could be used as background music. If the avatar’s clothes can be customized, why not creating a VR community t-shirt, and ask event attendees to wear it?

If identity and past experiences are connected with other senses (taste, smell or touch), it could be useful to place in the VR environment objects that can be used as a proxy for them. It’s (still) impossible to reproduce the taste of a food, but using a 3D object could recall the memory associated with the taste, and the experience around it. The same for a particular odor, where maybe the specific shape of the dispenser, or the object that generated it, could work as a good proxy.

Put accessibility at the center

Unless the community is VR-focused, chances are low its members have the necessary gears to properly experience a VR event, like a standalone headset or a PCVR. In addition, there are people that suffer from motion sickness, so cannot really use a headset. While planning a community event in virtual reality, it’s core to make the event as much accessible as possible, examining entrance barriers and friction points, and dedicate time and effort to lower them down.

For example, there are platforms that offer 2D clients, to participate in the VR experience from a desktop PC, or even a mobile phone. The price to pay is losing some non verbal communication elements, like head nodding, hands movement, eye tracking, etc. But more people will be able to participate and build common memories, reinforce their sense of community.

It is also important to dedicate some time to “onboard” people to the platform. Despite several tutorials focused on how to use the app, platform controls, etc, we all know people don’t often read manuals. My suggestion is to organize a video call on a quick intro session to VR, to align event attendees to a few standard concepts. This learning moment will also be useful to do hardware checks, like a working mic, make people used to platform controls, give them a glance of what to expect, fix errors in installing the app / 2D client, and will avoid spending time to fix problem while in VR, delaying or even ruining the experience of the attendees. Over time, more experienced members can run these crash-courses into VR, as an occasion to give back to the community.

Why you should organize a community event in Virtual Reality

Pandemic forced all of us, community managers used to organize in-person events, to interact exclusively using the online medium. I have no doubt that, post pandemic, we’ll be back to in-person activities: as human beings, we are genetically wired to this form of interaction. But I also think there is a third option, able to break this online vs offline dichotomy: Virtual Reality. To me, as community managers, we should seriously start considering to run some of our events in virtual reality, adding over time this new option to our precious “community toolbox”. Allow me to list the core reasons.

Online brought several positive elements, with two that really stood out: no more physical barriers to attend an event (not able to travel to the place, no time for commute, I have to choose between family / event, etc), and a considerably less effort for the event organizers, both in financial terms, that the time required. The same applies to VR events, and it’s already a huge plus.

On the other side, online events severely lack in two areas, compared to in-person counterparts: attendees’ attention span and connection opportunities. Both are not impossible, but difficult to obtain.
On the contrary, because VR is immersive, attendees focus on what’s happening to them “here and now”, without being too much distracted by the rest of the world (or, simpler, by the rest of open tabs in their browsers).
And because of the “spatial” element of VR events, where attendees can move around in the virtual space, during moments of unstructured networking people tend to naturally gather in small groups and talk to each other. Similarly, they can listen to a discussion happening close to them, and then decide to join it or move to another group. Or spontaneously start interacting with an avatar close to them. I’ve seen this happening to every single meetup I attended in virtual reality. For what it’s worth, Remo.co brings a very similar “spatial” paradigm to online conferences, and it works pretty well, for my personal experience.

Virtual reality experiences offer also several options to reinforce two key elements of every community: a sense of togetherness, and the perception of a common identity.
Going around in a virtual event, it’s possible to perceive the mood and the vibe, if attendees are awake and proactive, or just passive listener. It’s hard to explain, but it happens, like it happens for real events. And when the mood is positive and energized, attendees feel part of something bigger, are happy to be there, and not somewhere else, and there is a positive peer pressure to contribute. It’s empowering!
For the identity piece, the space in virtual reality can be customized to breath the community identity. From putting around picture of past experiences that bring good shared memories to attendee’s minds, to symbols disseminated everywhere, that are unique to the community. It’s even possible to re-create real locations where the community was used to gather. Avatars too can contribute to the community identity, for example by wearing a common dress.
All of that mainly because the intrinsic immersive aspect of a VR event, and the maturity of the VR platform used, in terms of environmental details and space customization options offered.

Another additional considerations it about the Gen Z and Gen Alpha habits: they’re already used to interact with friends and other people in a 3D space using a 2D client (e.g.: Fortnite, Minecraft and other platforms). So, for them, the transition to an immersive 3D world is pretty straightforward, I would even say expected.

Virtual reality is a new frontier

Of course, virtual reality is a new frontier, it may be scary for someone (like videoconferences scared some people before we were forced to get used to them), it has a learning curve, and it’s difficult to get it right on the first attempt. It’s normal and expected. But personal connections make all the difference between a group of people, and a community. And only in VR I felt personally connected to other attendees, similar to how I feel during in-person events. Something that didn’t happened at the same level during the many other online events I’ve participated in these last 10 months, no matter their quality. Simply put, I believe the online medium doesn’t allow, while the VR medium can, if well orchestrated.

So, you should try, as soon as possible, to organize an event for your community in Virtual Reality. Test and iterate. The majority of the platforms are free to use, or free up to a certain number of attendees (around 50), and some of them offer 2D clients for people without a VR headset. Curios to know where to start? Here I put some key principles to organize community events in virtual reality.

Create a Community Strategic Plan for the whole team

Using the Community Strategy Plan

There are common challenges every team of community builders faces. Contribution to company’s goal, team members alignment, long term planning and execution with the next step already in mind, a diverse and rich community landscape to support, etc. Mine is no exception, and we tried to address, or at least mitigate, some of these challenges thanks to the Feverbee’s Community Strategic Plan.

Why the Community Strategic Plan, and how?

I’m deeply rooted in the importance of the whys, the reasons motivating our actions. In the context of a brand community program, the whys are the goals the company wants to pursue, thanks to the community tool. The complexity every community professional faces is to link those goals with dat-to-day execution. The Community Strategic Plan creates a clear connection between these two extremes. Via interconnected hops, defining the overall community strategy, tactics, expected results, resources allocation and other important elements.

The first time we worked on the plan, we followed all of its canonical key elements. The second time, we deviated slightly from the manual, focusing on the following key elements:

  • Goals: what the organization wishes to achieve from the community.
  • Objectives: what behaviors community members need to perform in order to achieve the goals.
  • Emotions: what feelings to amplify and leverage, in order to influence community members to perform desired behaviors. We expressed them using the perspective of user stories. For example “I’m proud of giving back to my local ecosystem thanks to technologies“. Or “I am motivated to offer compelling content to my members to increase hands-on learning at different levels“.
  • Tactics: the specific projects the team will execute to amplify these emotions. We didn’t go too deep into defining action steps, because we made the plan in the context of an entire team. Once a person, or sub team, starts working on a specific tactic, they will also have the freedom, and responsibility, to define detailed steps.

The Community Strategic Plan and the existing team culture

In Google, we use OKRs. For the Community Strategic Plan to be truly adopted and followed, and not to be forgotten after the initial enthusiasm, we had to find a way to insert it into the “existing team flow”. Luckily, it’s wasn’t that difficult, as a mapping between the Community Strategic Plan and the OKR framework is pretty straightforward. From the OKR angle:

  • Objectives express goals and intents
  • Key Results express measurable milestones which, if achieved, will advance objective(s) in a useful manner.

So, considering the key elements of the Community Strategic Plan aforementioned:

  • A goal provide an high-level categorization of a group of Objectives in the OKR
  • An objective maps with an Objective in the OKR
  • A tactic maps to a Key Result in the OKR

Bonding the Community Strategy Plan with team OKRs was the way to keep team members focused on the tactics. In general, I strongly encourage to adapt and connect the Community Strategic Plan to the existing team habits. For several teams, adopting the plan is already an important mindset shift, so it should not be weighed down by further changes to team routines.

Work on the Community Strategic Plan in an remote team setup

Honestly, it was quite a complex exercise to work on the Community Strategy Plan in a remote team setup. Because of the many consequent steps, the many “diverge-converge-decide” phases, the non trivial amount of time, focus and effort required to formalize the entire plan.

I started making each team member aware of what is a Community Strategy Plan, and the potential advantages in adopting this new framework in the team. Thanks to previous retrospectives about the work we did together, I had enough material to support the proposal.

Then, with a sub group of experienced community builders, we set goals, objectives and emotions. We iterated twice on them, to be sure we developed quite extensively the company goals, without leaving anything behind. The experience of the sub group allowed to focus on the important elements, to interpret goals considering also “historical context”, and to identify emotions, thanks to their deep knowledge of community members.

Finally, we shared the pre-work done with the whole team, and leveraged everyone’s contribution for a tactics brainstorming. Fresh-air and alternative points of views, provided by newer team members, were really useful. We then prioritized tactics and picked up the top ones, completing the last element of the Community Strategic Plan.

Challenges and opportunities ahead

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, strategic thinking and purse team alignment while working with the full spectrum of communities is one of the core reasons we created our Community Strategy Plan. With the plan now in place, I asked every team member to constantly check if the ways they’re spending their time with communities resonate with one or more priority tactics. If yes, đź‘Ť. If not, or they may need to refocus their effort, or we may need to improve and adapt the plan, as no tool is the perfect tool, especially over time.

Speaking about time, the more you move closer to execution (from company goals down to tactics), the quicker is the “speed of adaptation“. It means goals are here to stay for the long period (ideally), while tactics may change quickly. When we prioritized tactics, we had to left behind some interesting ones, or others that needed for some pre-condition to be true, in order to become feasible. I’m quite sure, in the future, we’ll include some of those tactics into the official Community Strategic Plan.

Measurement is another area of untapped opportunities: in fact, for some of the priority tactics, we hadn’t a precise idea on how to measure the impact, or even the progress. We had a feeling it should be possible, and that was enough to commit to do it later. It’s not a “postpone-to-forget” attempt, but it could become without the right discipline. So I foresee lot of data-oriented learnings we’ll acquire executing those tactics.

(Credits to Unsplash for the post image)

How to Be an Effective Manager of a Community Builders Team

(This post was originally published on CMX Hub blog, I’m adding it to my blog to keep everything in order)

A lot of community builders are working as a one (wo)man band, doing everything on their own to support their beloved communities. Far less common is the situation where you have a team of community builders working together on the same community program. As a manager of a team like this, how does one build, sustain, and grow it?

Luckily, a lot of the existing culture surrounding team management can be applied with success. I like to think about Tuckman’s stages of group development as a good starting point. It describes the inevitable phases in order for a team to grow, face up to their challenges, find solutions, and deliver results. What are specific elements and suggestions to consider, within the frame of a community builder’s team?

Phase 1: Form

In this phase, a new team is created. Its members join for the first time, start to think about the common project, and the reasons to work together. They also begin to get to know each other, both professionally and personally. There are three essential key responsibilities for the team manager: establish the vision, hire team members, and connect them.

No one more than the team manager should know the reason for such team to exist, why the company needs the community. And this reason should drive the hiring process too: there are plenty of resources on how to hire good community managers and builders, but just the right skills are not enough. It’s important to identify someone who shares the same vision and is motivated by the same whys. Initially, that vision will be a strong first element of commonality among team members. Subsequently, it will help everyone to have a clear understanding of their part in the journey. Over the long period, this alignment will provide a major boost to members’ spirit, productivity, and happiness.

Once there is a common goal among team members, another manager’s core responsibilities during the Form phase is to shift the newly formed group mindset from “me” to “us,” increasing as much as possible the many:many relationships inside the team. Think, for example, about engaging members in some type of collaborative effort, so they can motivate one another and hold one another accountable. When the shift happens, the team unleashes its real potential, obtaining results that are more than the mere sum of people’s individual contributions.

Phase 2: Storm

Once team members start to collaborate with each other, sooner or later, the vast majority of teams will go through a phase of conflicts, where the focus is on the differences among members, more than on what unites them. On failures, more than on successes. On conflicts, more than on collaborations.

To successfully deal with this stage, the manager should address areas of uncertainty and foster collaborative discussions with positive outcomes among team members, to contrast that “conflict element.”

Among those areas, two of the most important are the definition of success and the community strategy. Connected with the aforementioned team vision, identifying what success for the community looks like, and the tangible returns the community should provide, helps the group to understand how the community can serve the company, and concentrates energy and resources in one common direction

Once the definition of success is known, the manager should ensure the team creates a proper strategy to pursue it. Tools like the community strategy canvas can help to lay down a clear path to follow while leaving space, at the same time, for diverse set of contributions, added values, and creativity every team member can bring into play. The canvas should be reviewed time to time by the team, to adapt to changing factors and to tackle new challenges in pursuing success.

Another common source of conflicts in a team of community builders, is when there are divergences on the appropriate behaviors community members should have. To avoid countless discussions, the manager can help the team to find and articulate a community tone. Once decided upon, these guidelines can both reduce conflicts inside the community and, for the ones that still happen, team members can find an easier way to solve them by following the tone.

Phase 3: Norm

This phase is where team members really cooperate together, all working toward the common goal, knowing and accepting each other. Despite lot of positive elements, a good manager knows the major risk of this phase lies in the inability of the team to challenge the status quo. The community is a living organism, always changing; a team that blindly sticks to outdated models to support itself could potentially represent a problem.

Investing in member training can prevent that. Participate in conferences on community management, organize recurring lectures or brown bag sessions about books or the latest articles on the matter, encourage folks to actively participate in a community of community builders, and much more. Whatever is useful to broaden views and expertise of the team and to bring fresh new ideas, you should be doing it.

Once these new ideas are found, it’s important to provide team members a protected space to test them. Especially for mature and big communities, the fear of a small spark, generated by an error of a community builder, becoming a wildfire damaging the community with a negative impact for the company, can prevent the team from introducing changes. So, the team manager should first set a culture where small and controlled failures are not only tolerated, but there is acknowledgement they are needed to improve, and then allocate resources to perform tests in a protected environment. For example running focus groups, or creating a special group of early adopters inside the community, etc.

Bringing an external point of view can also help: someone outside of the team could easily identify areas of improvements for the community, without being “emotionally connect and involved” with the rest of the team members, and the community itself. Once spotted, the manager should work to create a plan to solve these issues, and follow up on its execution.

Phase 4: Perform

In this phase, the team performs at its peak. Autonomously, well connected with company’s goals, and with very little guidance needed. Thanks to that, the manager can collect the most substantial fruits of their labor and has more time availability. How can one reuse both of them wisely?

For example, one way would be trying to grow visibility internally into the company and to obtain more resources, in the form of a budget increase, more team members, and so on. Even if reports that show connections between the community outcomes and the company needs have to be available since the first day of the community, in this phase there is more time to increase their accuracy, deepen the analysis, extend the long-term contribution measurement. All of this should be done with one main goal: show how indispensable the community is for the company. And the team manager has to be the spokesperson of this bond, more in this phase than ever, to guarantee a bright and long-term future for their team.

Alternatively, the manager can start looking for new company challenges to address, connected either with the community-related skills team members possess, or with new needs the community can solve for the company. Has the community, initially born to provide scalable support, proven to be a good source of ideas and product feedback? What about integrating it in the creation process for new products, or new versions of them? Has the community, born to mobilize a group of people toward a cause, proven to be a source of inspiring stories and loyal customers? What about morphing it in a place for brand ambassador? Creativity is the limit.

Just a final thought to recap: every team is like a small community, and it changes over time. While the main manager’s duty always remains to connect it with the rest of the company one side, and to serve it and allow team members to thrive on the other side, knowing the most typical phases of a team can allow the manager to be more prepared, and more effective, in fulfilling their duty.

(This post was originally published on CMX Hub blog, I’m adding it to my blog to keep everything in order)

Conferences for Community Managers in 2019

Chairs in a conference room

As per every job, it’s important to be part of a network of like minded and professionals with similar skills. What are the conferences for community managers, leaders and builders worthwhile attending in 2019?

** Note: this is a work-in-progress post, with new events added over time. Last update June 3rd **

Confirmed events

FOSDEM Community DevRoomFebruary 3, Brussels, Belgium: Every year, thousands of developers of free and open source software from all over the world gather at the event in Brussels. This year I was part of the Program Committee ;)

DevRelCon Tokyo, March 9, Tokyo, Japan: a conference about developer relations, developer experience, developer community, APIs and developer marketing. Part of the DevRelCon circuit.

DevRelCon San Francisco, June 6 and 7, San Francisco, California: This is THE annual San Francisco Bay area conference for Developer Relations and Developer Experience practioners! This is the conference where you can meet and learn from your community of dev advocates, community managers, team managers, dev marketers, and people in many roles that share DevRel and DX responsibilities in support, docs, engineering, product, partner engineering, BD, marketing, customer success, and more. Part of the DevRelCon circuit.

Swarm Conference, August 20-21, Sydney, Australia: Founded in 2011, Australia’s flagship community management conference connects local builders, thinkers, managers and makers with top international talent for two days of learning, collaboration, inspiration and outcomes.

CMX Summit, September 5-6, Redwood City, California: Over 2 days, CMX Summit seeks to expand discussions, techniques, and tactics applied to community building for businesses and support communities and their CEOs, CMOs, and builders at scale. (That’s you!) You’ll gain insights from the best in the industry and make lifelong friends

TheCR Connect, September 23-25, Boston, MA: TheCR Connect is exclusively for community practitioners – those engaged in the development, implementation, management, and measurement of community initiatives. You might be a community manager for a 5,000 person internal community, the community specialist at a start-up, or the director of community for a Fortune 500 brand. TheCR Connect is a vendor-free event to ensure that open conversations can happen between community practitioners.

DevRelCon London, December 10-11, London, United Kingdom: The fifth edition of DevRelCon London focuses on how developer relations, developer marketing, community management, and developer experience can learn from each other and from other disciplines. Part of the DevRelCon circuit.

Are you Italian?

If you’re a community manager, living in Italy, join the Italian Community Managers group, as we organize several event across the year, included 1 main conferences in Milan on November 15th, to discuss about these topics.

Other resources

There is also a list of upcoming DevRel-related events maintained by Mary, with big conferences and smaller meetups. And DevRel often crosses with community management, you know ;)

Any other important occasion missing in this list?